This past weekend marked the 20th anniversary of Sir William Macpherson’s report into police handling of the Stephen Lawrence Case. The report famously labelled London’s Metropolitan Police as ‘institutionally racist’ and set out numerous recommendations.
One must reflect on the Stephen Lawrence murder case in order to contextualise the Macpherson report. Lawrence was an 18-year-old man from South London who, in 1993, was brutally killed in an unprovoked racist attack by a gang of white men. A day following the attack an anonymous letter had been sent to the police listing suspects, however, the Lawrence family felt the police had not done enough to find the perpetrators.
unearthed the reality of racism that black communities had endured in Britain
After a press conference held between Lawrence’s parents and the visiting South African President, Nelson Mandela, the case received significant media coverage. Only in 2012, were two of the original suspects found guilty and sentenced for the murder. The police investigation, and subsequent Macpherson report, unearthed the reality of racism that black communities had endured in Britain.
The 1999 report conducted by Macpherson, a retired high court judge, received testimonies from over 80 witnesses. Macpherson not only condemned the Met for ‘institutional racism’ but also stressed the need for the police force to rebuild its relationship with ethnic minority communities. The report had stated that the issue was “worse than individual acts of racism” and that the police had been tainted by prejudice and “incompetence”.
The use of stop-and-search was criticised for contributing to the unjust targeting of black people.
Macpherson made 70 recommendation including the appointment of a family liaison officer, mandatory first-aid training and the recording of hate crimes. The use of stop-and-search was criticised for contributing to the unjust targeting of black people. One of the most significant recommendations made was the need to repeal ‘double jeopardy’ laws.
Double Jeopardy was a law that prevented a person being tried for the same crime more than once, regardless of new evidence emerging. This law was introduced as a way to ensure prosecutors thoroughly investigated a case before bringing it to trial and also to protect individuals from judicial abuses of power. The law was finally abolished in England and Wales in 2003, as a result of the Lawrence Case and the rapid development in DNA technology. Without the repeal of this law, two of Lawrence’s killers would not have been convicted.
41% of all under-18s in custody from minority ethnic backgrounds.
The relationship between the police force and minority ethnic communities in Britain has long been marred by feelings of distrust and contempt. The BBC reported that black and mixed-race Caribbean peoples had considerably lower confidence in the police than their white counterparts. This disparate relationship even extends to the criminal justice system which MP David Lammy reviewed in 2017. Lammy found 41% of all under-18s in custody were from minority ethnic backgrounds. He additionally suggested the need for flexibility in the use of criminal databases, which was causing high unemployment rates amongst these minority communities.
Black communities in Britain have to endure a more insidious yet silenced form of discrimination
One element that differentiates the experience of racism in Britain, as opposed to the United States, is unconscious bias. Whilst our transatlantic counterpart is still plagued with overt displays of racial intolerance and hatred, black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities in Britain have to endure a more insidious yet silenced form of discrimination. The Guardian’s 2018 investigation concluded that Britain was ‘unconsciously bias’ when it came to the topic of race. When questioned on everyday racism, 38% of their BAME respondents said they had been wrongfully suspected of shoplifting in comparison to 14% of white respondents. Many BAME individuals struggle to express the racial obstacles they face, especially when such obstacles are presented covertly or are institutionalised.
Institutional racism is no closer to being eradicated today than 20 years ago. BAME communities still find themselves disproportionately disadvantaged when job seeking, with some studies showing that white applicants are 74% more likely to gain employment than ethnic minorities with identical applications. Despite Macpherson having recommended that police forces diversify and reflect their communities, none have met these targets set over 20 years ago. This week senior officers at the Met confirmed that it may even take a century for the force to be truly representative.
Black communities have refused to accept this tragic state of affairs and have been seeking to empower their communities by tackling the prejudices held against them. Entrepreneur Cephas Williams recently founded the ’56 Black Men’ campaign. Williams used headshots of successful black men, from various professions, wearing hoodies in order to challenge the irrational fear of black men that many hold due to stereotyping. The issues raised in this campaign are reminiscent of the racial attacks that male Windrush migrants faced due to white communities deeming black men as sexual predators and crime instigators.
we must reflect on our individual prejudices
As this 20th anniversary passes, Britain is reminded of its systemic maltreatment of BAME communities. Macpherson’s damning report marked a watershed in the acknowledgement of racism, however more immediate action is needed in order to resolve the issue and rectify the racial disparities. One can only imagine the disappointment many of the surviving post-1945 migrants must feel when they see just how little progress has been made in combatting racism. As well as looking at institutions and policymakers for reform, we must reflect on our individual prejudices and seek to redress moments of silent complicity.